Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A Book Review

Book Reviews, Fiction

Where I live, there’s never a shortage of Chinese restaurants to choose from. As a Filipino, if I’m not craving for Filipino food, my version of comfort food is Chinese. I’ve got Rice ‘N Roll up the street from my house, Little Szechuan which delivers the best lunch plates to work and Wing Lee, my go-to for dimsum in the morning.

But beyond my fill of salt and pepper fish fillet or the crispy hunan beef, I admit I’ve never thought so much about the stories behind my food. And of course just like any group of people around the world doing something together, there’s always a story, and/or a back story.

The book, the food.

This is the premise of Lillian Li’s novel Number One Chinese Restaurant (Shop your local indie bookstore), a Chinese restaurant called the Beijing Duck House that specializes in carved peking duck and hotpot in Maryland. Jimmy Han struggles to run the restaurant under the shadow of his deceased father who opened the restaurant, and his older, more pragmatic brother Johnny currently overseas. As the youngest of the family, Jimmy has had his share of fuck-ups and have always sought to prove himself–to the Duck House staff, to his parents, to his brother, even to himself. But beyond Jimmy are even bigger players in Li’s novel–the two oldest servers of the establishment, Ah-Jack and Nan, who have carved and waited and served countless customers throughout the years.

Together, these three create the tapestry of the novel along with other characters, as Li weaves in and out of their lives centered on the Duck House. From the restaurant owners, staff down to the crew working in the kitchen, immigration also plays a central theme. But at the core is love–the kind between reluctant lovers, a mother and his son, and all of its other messy manifestations.

The voices of Nan and Ah-Jack are the most memorable to me, two wait staff who have spent decades of their lives in the restaurant. Each with a family of their own, their lives become intertwined when the older Ah-Jack takes a young Nan in under his wing at another restaurant they used to work at. They both live their respective married lives at home but at work, the two dance on the edges of unrequited love as they get older, wait more tables. Day after day, duck after duck.   

The Seas by Samantha Hunt: A Book Review

Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction

Sometimes you come across a book that throws you so out of field that the only choice you make is you sit with it, go through every single page, suddenly caught in a buoyancy you didn’t think you’d enjoy until the last turn, the last sentence and last word rolls of your mouth, stuck in your mind. You don’t know whether that last breath was a sigh of relief or regret, the characters still swimming in your head.

Because as a water sign (Pisces), you know that drowning yourself in a book filled with themes of water is the next best idea, guaranteed to hook you in as the waves pull you closer, succumbing to the swell.

When I first opened The Seas (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Samantha Hunt, I knew I was in for a out-of-body, oceanic ride. What I didn’t anticipate was how deep I would be pulled under by the 19-year old narrator, a young woman whose current is unbreakable, fierce in the ways she loved.

The Seas by Samantha Hunt at Ocean Beach (San Francisco)

Convenience Store Woman: A Book Review

Book Reviews, Fiction

Ever have one of those moments where you feel like you’re not made for this world? That nothing you see around you makes any real sense but you’ve got to get on with the norm, with what’s expected to make life less complicated?

Meet Keiko Furukura, the star of Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (Shop your local indie store), translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Convenience Store Woman with convenience store goods.

After a couple of incidents in her childhood where she was deemed not normal, Keiko resolved to not doing or saying anything outside the norm to avoid displeasing her family. She didn’t want to ruffle any more feathers although in her mind, her actions made perfect sense.

My family always loved and cherished me, and that’s why they were so worried and wanted to cure me. I recall hearing my parents discussing how to do this, and wondered what it was about me that needed correcting. My father once drove me some distance to another town to meet a therapist. The therapist immediately assumed there must be some problem at home, but really there wasn’t.

She moves through life trying not to make any ripples, until she comes across a store about to open with a sign that pulled her in: they’re hiring. As soon as Keiko turns into a convenience store worker, she knew she is reborn.

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A visit to my local Daiso store.

At the store she greets customers with a cheery “Irasshaimase!” She finds joy in making sure that the day’s specials are arranged neatly, ready for their customers to take their fill. Day after day, week after week, up until the months and years roll by, her existence starts to revolve around ensuring that she is a capable convenience store worker. She mimicks the way her co-workers speak, dress and move to blend in, to blend in and deflect any questions about herself.

While Keiko revels in her routine and her role, the people around her find it a little too disconcerting that she’s single, has no boyfriend or kids, that she’s spent close to two decades behind a cash register, arranging rows and shelves at her beloved store.

When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.

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Goods from Daiso.

All this changes as soon as she meets Shiraha, a disgruntled man who attempts to work at the same store but whose beliefs belie his role as a store worker. After a turn of events that sends both Keiko and Shiraha in the graces of the “normal world,” the new challenge they have to face is to engage with the idiosyncrasies of this other world.

I wasn’t expecting to love Mukata’s novel but I did. The tone and the voice of the Furukara is exactly how she acted in the novel, conveying the world through her eyes in a sparse, matter-of-fact manner. In a world that deemed her unnatural because of her desires, actions and decisions, she became good at identifying what it is that made people comfortable–reflection of themselves. She mirrored her co-workers’ mannerisms so that they can relate to her, from the clothes that they wear to their style in speech. Furukura knew that to be a “normal human” is to be engaged with what everyone was thinking, doing or feeling.

She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality–however messy–is far more comprehensible.

The book is a beautiful commentary on conforming to social pressures, at the expense of sacrificing our own desires. What made it harder is that for a woman whose life did not revolve around building a family, her desire to stay as a convenience store worker was something she had to defend, even mask. At the same time, it also challenges the way we structure our own desires, whether they are really manifestations of our own thoughts or they are molded by the boxes we choose to confine ourselves in. Whether it’s the “normal world” or a convenience store, are we really out making our own decisions? Or are we just reflections of the people, places and the world around us?

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Convenience Store Woman (Shop your local indie store) by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Grove Atlantic (176 pages)
June 12, 2018
My rating: ★★★★
Convenience Store Woman

Note: Thank you to the Grove Atlantic team for providing me a copy of this wonderful book. 

Finding An Uncommon Type, with Tom Hanks (A Book Review)

Book Reviews, Fiction

I have a confession to make: I don’t really care much for Tom Hanks the actor, but I am quite impressed by Tom Hanks the writer

34368390When Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks was released, I was immediately intrigued. I usually ignore books by celebrities and dismiss them, with the exception of The Autobiography of Gucci Mane which I reviewed last month. Ok, so maybe my barometer for legit reads is if they get interviewed on KQED which Hanks did, a signal that this was a “real book” as opposed to just a self-promotional ploy.

So when Book of the Month had the book as one of its monthly selections, I knew I had my choice picked.

It wouldn’t be for another two months after that that I would dive into the book, and as always, the timing couldn’t have been perfect. I purposely did not read any reviews or listen to any interviews because I wanted my review to unvarnished, free of influence.

And boy did I love this book.

Each story is anchored with a quiet but resolute vibrance, the kind that emphasizes humanity more than grandiosity (I expected the latter, because hey, he’s a movie star after all). There aren’t any big hooplas, no grand entrances or fire-truck alarms going off that holds your breath captive by the page. Instead, he writes about the many rhythms of daily life, the ones we will have  missed if we weren’t paying close attention.

Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

Book Reviews, Fiction

If 2017 was finally the year that ushered in feminist science fiction fabulism, let 2018 be a stronger contender for more releases of the same kind!

Last year, I read two notable books in this category and reviewed them on the blog: The Power by Naomi Alderman (one of the best books Barack Obama said he read that year) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Folks may have casted this book as a dystopian read but come to think of it–a world where women held a tangible, lethal power over men? More would argue that that’s actually utopian.

I remember these books while I was reading Heartland by Ana Simo, a copy that Restless Books sent to me late last year. I didn’t know much about Simo, but after reading that the New Yorker was born and raised in Cuba and participated in early women’s and gay and lesbian rights groups, I felt an instant kinship.

Heartland is the dystopian tale of a queer Latina from Elmira County who loses her ability to write and is only comforted by the fact that she will gain some semblance of her old self by committing murder. A likely but unsuspecting target: Mercy McCabe, who has recently broken up with the love of our narrator’s life, Bebe.

If this plot doesn’t interest you, consider this: how all of these things were executed, down to the would-be murderer’s schemes/thought processes/details are hilarious. Meandering between establishing an identity as a queer woman of color, as a writer, as someone worth remembering, Simo’s prose simultaneously probes and tickles.

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Beyond the Rice Fields with Naivo

Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction

Ravinkazo nanintsana
Ka ny lasa tsy azo ahoana
Fa ny sisa ampanirina

Leaves falling
There’s no protecting those that drop
But those that stay are made to grow

(Malagasy Hainteny)

First, an embarrassing confession: I am woefully ignorant about Madagascar, the Malagasy people and the Malagasy culture.

It wasn’t until I signed up for Restless Books monthly book subscription that that changed, when I received a copy of Beyond the Rice Fields (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Naivo, the first book in Malagasy to be translated in English. Last year’s book reviews comprised of titles gleaned from bestseller and notable lists (particularly from The New York Times and other mainstream publications such as the Indie Book of the Month), as well as shortlisted books for various distinctions so Naivo’s book is a welcome change.

Located in the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. And here I was, thinking that growing up in an island nation myself I had a pretty good grasp of other island nation kin. This book is admittedly the first time I’ve come across any form of Malagasy literature, a surprising and embarrassing detail I honestly can’t shake off.

So I take the book in, prepared to be humbled. And boy did I.

Beyond the Rice Fields is primarily the story of Tsito, a slave who worked his way towards his emancipation. But unlike many slave narratives I’ve read previously, the conext of Tsito’s slavery is set during a time when a nation’s own people dealt with each other in a feudalistic manner–even before the vazaha, or white people came.

Naivo traces the young boy’s life from the time he caught the eye of a traveling merchant, Rado, up until he was gifted to one of Rado’s daughters, Fara. As the story wove in between the eventual lovers, he also portrayed the historical and colonial roots of Madagascar.

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#GetLit This Holiday: A Literary Guide to Family Parties

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Note: This post was originally published on HellaPinay.com.

You ready for another Filipino family party?

With the end of 2k17 just around the corner, you know there’s bound to be an endless supply of pancit, lumpia and possibly (hopefully), lechon. Not to mention all the do-do’s as my family calls ‘em: asado (stewed pork or chicken dish), menudo (another stewed pork dish), embutido (the Filipino version of meatloaf). You know, the works.

The food will be plentiful no doubt, slowly settling in the nearest chair or corner as family, friends and relatives trickle in, as Jep Paraiso describes hilariously in Filipino Titas on Thanksgiving/Christmas be like…series. I don’t know about you but I’m still *reeling* from those videos, grateful for the laughter welling deep in my belly. Filipino titas (aunts) can cause quite a ruckus and I find it mildly comforting that his tita impressions are not only spot-on, but almost universal.

But what is most profound to me is that in the midst of his wittiest quips were inestimable kernels of truth, a window to the Filipino consciousness. That in a span of a minute, Paraiso was able to give the world a glimpse of our complexities and idiosyncrasies as a people. I guess there’s nothing quite like an effective use of humor to induce a little self-examination, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

What the videos reveal are issues in our communities rooted in the same things that have continued to oppress us for generations; that what we consider as usual banter is actually harmful, hurtful in ways that have prompted us to toughen up. The last thing you want to think of is a Filipino family party turned into a battlefield, a space where you have to learn how to duck lest an off-color remark is hurled your way.

So what is there to do? Culture cannot change overnight. For as long as our lens of what is good and what is bad as a people is colored by Eurocentric ideals, we remain at the mercy of a plate of pancit and lumpia, dodging that one no-filter tita. But fortunately for us, we have gentle teachers at our disposal, amiable fellows to aid us in our journeys of self-inquiry–books.

Below are five contemporary titles I’ve chosen attuned to things I’ve picked up from the videos. These books have been heavy on my mind this year, and I’ve been constantly recommending them to colleagues, friends, and family members in search of narratives of strength, courage, and integrity. They are the work of queer people and women of color, voices that bring hope and light in these necessary conversations.

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On body-shaming, fat-shaming:

Ever had an experience where the first thing your family members comment on when they see you is your weight? Whether you’ve lost or gained more pounds? It isn’t really the kind of warm welcome you were expecting but as soon as you walk through the door, you can’t help but be subjected to it. When I read Hunger by Roxane Gay this year, I was reminded of the ways not just Filipino families, but our society as a whole, view our bodies and scale them up. Women’s bodies bear the brunt of intense scrutiny the most. The size of our bodies become standards for desirability, or objects of either admiration or ridicule. Hunger is Gay’s personal account of living in her body, interspersed with the many ways she’s struggled and triumphed in a weight-obsessed culture.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)

On anti-blackness:

While Filipinos are known for their hospitality, I was reminded by the videos that there is still an undercurrent of anti-blackness in our communities. Our people have internalized centuries of colonization so deep that White is Right has been ingrained, massaged in our memory. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a haunting, beautiful read about a black family in rural Mississippi, a story of deep love within a family in the face of life’s greatest challenges. How a family ravaged by death, drugs and racism continue beyond their hardest moments to find joy and beauty in each other. It reminded me of the ways Filipino families take care of each other in the midst of the hardest struggles, how we choose and find the world in each other.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017)

On queerness:

Your best friend or roommate forever AKA your partner would probably be comforted with the mention of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, an indispensable read on queerness, family and religion. Set in Ireland, it is the story of a young man living through an era of extreme homophobia, in a country where Catholicism is king. Boyne chronicles the struggle of trying to survive a world that is against you, of trying to live as freely and truthfully as you can. Being Catholic or religious is still a cornerstone of many Filipino families, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a resonant story of navigating tradition and heteronormative norms in its most genuine form.

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Little Fires Everywhere (2017)

On families:

No two families are the same, and while Filipino families have quirks that we’ve all become accustomed to, I wanted to bring up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere which explores the breadth of differences between families. In the book are different kinds of families: a single mother trying to raise her daughter, a mother trying to hold a large family together, childless couples hoping to raise their own, the joys of chosen family. This book is a conscientious tale of mothering, of the struggles of raising a family, even of pregnancy. It magnifies differences, but also bridges them in the pursuit of learning how to love even the hardest part of ourselves.

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Pachinko (2017)

On the role of women:

Bless all titas in the land, to be honest. In spite of the issues I’ve listed here, and how we’ve come to really understand the Filipino psyche, it is without a doubt that women are the bedrock of any family. I thought of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, the story of a Korean woman living at the height of imperial Japan, who has endured many things and whose lineage has always carried the burden of suffering. It is a virtuous story of the woman’s lot, and the ways women carry their families beyond trauma, beyond generations.

These titles are not only great to bookend the year with, but also function as holiday gift recommendations to those who are curious, those who are interested in understanding ourselves, each other, and the world better. After all, we need a little more prodding within so we can be gentler on each other. And instead of trading light-hearted barbs at the next Filipino family party, think of tenderness. It’s the best way to #GetLit.

The Great Five from Libromance: Best Fiction Books of 2017

Book Reviews, Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Running a book blog is lots of hard (but pleasurable!) work and one of the things I’m always excited for are end of the year lists, best picks and titles deemed noteworthy usually announced around this time.

I’ve seen a lot of best of the year book lists and here are some of my favorites:

Out of all these lists though, I’m particularly partial to The New York Times best of the year book list, which usually consists of fiction and nonfiction books. Selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review, it is something I look forward to every year.

So when it was finally released on November 30th, I was thrilled to see all five of their listed fiction books as titles I read and reviewed this year on the blog! Five-starred and highly rated, these books are the kind I hope to read for the rest of my life, stories that move and shake and empathize and challenge. I cried throughout most of them, and I’ve probably listed them on numerous lists prior to this post. They are the kind of stories I love reading and I hope to write in the same vein someday.

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The Great Five

Here are *the great five* of 2017, along with excerpts from my book reviews this year:

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was like having a deep, deep breath lodged in the cavity of my chest, something I held on to for its entirety. Ward’s newest novel isn’t for the faint of heart either, but for someone who’s strong of will, someone who can understand the gravity of what it means to be healed, and what it means to need healing, specially at a time when the world just feels too heavy. Read the full review here.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The book follows the lives of reluctant lovers (at first), Nadia and Saeed in the process of living, of leaving. Saeed is very much the son of his parents, timid and reserved, while Nadia is out on her own, having left the roof of her parents’ house as soon as she was able to. She dons black robes for protection, as she rides her motorcycle through the city of an unspecified country. It is a love story as much as it is a story of migration and transitions. Instead of focusing on the journey out, what Hamid focused on was how wars move and change people. Read the full review here.

Autumn by Ali Smith

This is a novel set in the UK, not a love story but a story about love in many forms. There’s Elisabeth and her mom, living alongside their neighbor, Mr. Daniel Gluck, and the world around them revolving in varying degrees of discovery and reconciliation. Theirs (the main characters’)  was no ordinary friendship, no feudal relationship. They talked about arts, books, ways of looking at the world. The ever-present question, always Gluck’s greeting to the young one was: What you reading? Read the full review here.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This endless work and suffering is what bookends the story, manifested in different characters. Lee portrays all kinds of women in Pachinko, as she lays out layers of complexities. With each generation, she highlights the struggles of Korean women within their respective socio-economic contexts: women who aren’t allowed to work because of their husband’s beliefs, women who are imprisoned in their marriages because of economic and social reasons, women who are fiercely independent, women who long to come home to Korea, women who long to move to America, broken women, heavy-hearted women, happy women, but always, suffering women. Read the full review here.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

This book is something I dove right into where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand. Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips. Read the full review here.

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Have you read any of these books? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Who Run the World? Girls! With Naomi Alderman (A Book Review of “The Power”)

Book Reviews, Fiction

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
Octavia Butler

I remember reading Octavia Butler’s book once, the first time I’ve ever been drawn to science fiction. It was crossing a realm of spirituality that I never knew could exist in science fiction, because I’ve long dismissed the genre as something that young men only enjoyed. That was an embarrassing mistake.

These days, I seem to gravitate towards certain kinds of literature, always on the lookout for the next best read. After reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, I wanted more. I started reading this book soon after, and ended with the most appropriate title I could have ever picked up — Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy (review coming soon). I was on a feminist science fiction kick, and I didn’t even realize it!

The Power (Indiebound) by Naomi Alderman cements this period for me, as I dove right into a world where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand.

Scientists are confounded. Government officials are panic-stricken. Mothers become fearful, unsure of what’s happening at first.

And then it becomes apparent: it is only young girls who are gifted with skein, electricity humming and coursing through their bodies. Chaos ensues, as everything gets upended.

Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips.

There’s a girl who calls herself Eve, (called Allie before the power) who listens to a voice she hears in her mind for the next steps, the back and forth conversation which has proved to save her life more than once. After repeated assaults by her guardian, she runs off to a convent and finds herself cared for by nuns, along with other girls who have run away themselves. This is where Eve finds footing to fulfill a prophecy, of being the chosen leader by the Goddess.

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A Lifetime of Looking, with Lisa Ko (A Book Review of “The Leavers”)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Days after reading Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Amazon | Indiebound), one question lingered in my mind: can we really spare our loved ones the most gory, painful thing in our lives in order to save them–whatever “saving” looks like?

The story is written in the same format Arundhati Roy’s latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where you find out more and more about the characters, the bulk of the story and really, the depth of the plot as you go on. But I guess that’s a major driving point in the book, the search for elusive truth. As with our lives, tbqh.

The Leavers is a book about a Chinese immigrant family in New York, a mother and her son, as they struggle to make a new life for themselves away from home. And almost like every immigrant family I know, both Pei-lan/Polly and Deming/Daniel go through the process of navigating cultural shifts and managing personal transformations.

From learning how to survive as an immigrant (all the bureaucracy, whether above ground or not), the tenderness between mother and son grows with each new discovery. Each day that they are together, specially when Polly has the rare day off, the duo ventures out into the new world they’ve made for themselves.

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Amidst reveling in the simultaneous grandeur and details of the Big Apple, poverty, the struggle to assimilate and immigration woes descend upon the family. And it only gets worse.